Here was the scene at the Javits Center, one of this country’s mass vaccination sites, last Saturday: people walking snaking lines of constant motion through a giant glass warehouse in New York, producing the kind of ambient, enveloping hum of conversation that you never hear anymore because of the pandemic. At the very front of the line, when the last National Guard member directed people to numbered tables across the floor to receive their shots, he offered any couple their assignment and then: “Together forever!”
Then, everyone got shots. We got stickers, we sat in black folding chairs spaced and faced in one direction, and, after a calm 15 minutes, we all got up and left.
So there at this epic site constructed for the cheerful, industrial delivery of shots, the scene was still a little disparate, interior, and mostly silent, an individual experience done concurrently — no swell of community, no hot music. Many people have been a little muted or brief about celebrating their own vaccinations; there are a dozen deep and good reasons I can imagine for it, and first among them a hyper-awareness that each of us is so small a portion of the country that’s seen so many horrible deaths. And relief is hard to quantify. But for just a moment, I would like to dwell on the moment. It really is this weird thing to walk into a CVS or a high school cafeteria or what looks like an Avengers complex theme park ride likely by yourself, EXPERIENCE A TRANSFORMATIVE MOMENT of this century, sit in silence for 15 minutes, then likely leave by yourself, externally unchanged into the unchanged world.
Four-point-six million people got vaccinated last Saturday in the United States. Forever, I will want to hear about you getting vaccinated: family, friends, total strangers, friends of strangers, those emergency nurses and doctors back in December and January, elderly musicians, someone’s beloved aunt. Let’s hear it. Imagine Pac-Man with the dots, but he’s chasing vaccine photos, and the decisive moment when someone’s life returns to them. Imagine little Super Mario chimes popping off every second across the entire United States — like that ca-ching, ca-ching, ca-ching — like one of those maps where all the lights ping on, like old some telephone or airline ad where every city and town lights up.
Sometimes it’s like I can’t even believe the pandemic has happened. And nothing comparatively bad has even happened to me during this time, except that I have been alive during the pandemic, which has transformed life into an abyss and infused society with an unbearable, sprawling grief that will snake far beyond it. So here we arrive at this instant, mundane act of receiving a shot in the face of the grim past and present. But it’s way more than that, obviously. In ten seconds, it’s the intersection of something deep in your heart that only you can know, with the literal interior transformation of developing protections against the virus, with the true interconnected nature of society — because we’re all really just little Lego pieces clicking into place in a giant fence around the virus.
It’s WILD, in the very best unbelievable way, what the scientists and everyone’s been able to do in this year of all-enveloping darkness to invent these vaccines and produce them. Confetti, balloons, cherry blossoms and wisteria from trees, hot music from the 2000s, stars should fall on these people, forever.
Start back at the beginning with the messenger RNA vaccines. The big driver in part of that research, Kati Karikó, left Communist Hungary with less than $2,000 sewn into a teddy bear and the big academic research apparatus — for years — didn’t go for her pitches for messenger RNA research, she had ideas that didn’t pan out and lost out professionally, until it all came together! “My dream was always that we develop something in the lab that helps people,” her research collaborator, Drew Weissman, said. “I’ve satisfied my life’s dream.” Decades ago Barney Graham, now at the NIH and behind one of the other big-gun developments that make these vaccines work, was trying to understand why a vaccine trial in the 1960s had gone so wrong — and heard all the time, Why are you bothering with coronaviruses? “Barney, it looks like it’s working.” That’s how he got the news about the earliest results!
Then you’ve got this billionaire scientist couple in Germany at BioNTech riding bikes to and from the lab, pushing forward with an mRNA vaccine with Pfizer, and the Moderna executive who wept with his family when their research results came back. Then you’ve got all these people up in upstate New York and down in Auburn, Alabama, making vials with these giant machines that you can see in these beautiful photos, and the people in Kalamazoo and Wisconsin and all the other places running lines filling those vials with formulated vaccines, then the people putting the vials into boxes and freezing them. You've got the people who signed up for the vaccine trials last year. You’ve got the people delivering these things. You’ve got the pharmacists who got more vaccine out of the vials than anticipated. You’ve got the people actually giving us the shots. You’ve got the people knocking on doors to sign people up and flagging down cars so nothing gets lost. The cafeteria worker who told one of the researchers at Pfizer that making lunch for the team made him feel like part of the vaccine effort? He was!
All of this so 4.6 million people in a single day can experience an instant shot, done and over, and look and seem the same but be different afterward, and all the little dots all over the map can come to life.
This news can be complicated, and living in reality requires complication — that vaccines don’t bring people back, that the global pandemic will take a long time to end, that it’s going to be a challenging endeavor to persuade everyone to get these shots, that grim inequalities endure, that people may run out of time waiting, that in an environment where you couldn’t believe the last year how could you really ever feel confident about the future? But the complication and grief can concurrently deepen the good news of the vaccines, too. Even the issues being studied with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine underscore how enormous the achievements are, that the problems have been in such rare cases. If this double-edged dynamic were not so, getting vaccinated would be nothing — just a mundane obligation on some afternoon when you could otherwise be doing anything else, rather than something you see the words “I cried” attached to again and again on Instagram.
The nature of the thing, though, is that it’s brief and anticlimactic to get a shot, and the joint protect-yourself, protect-others venture is invisible. Society remains limited in literal capacity by the pandemic, and celebration in practice might begin and end with that Instagram post. But millions of times a day in the United States now, that moment is actually grand and populated, with the billionaire scientists riding their bikes around outside and the weeping executives and cafeteria cooks and vial-factory team, with the champagne and mezcal flowing and flowers falling, as each person clicks into place to someday end the terrible thing that’s happened. ●